Lifetime’s sharp and airy Renaissance Faire comedy transplants a Manhattan socialite to the muddy countryside of upstate New York.
My first job was at a Renaissance faire. When I was 16, I was strapped into a cleavage-amping corset, forced to remove my brand-new nose ring for historical accuracy and set up at the local chainmail booth owned by a woman who cutesily referred to mustard as “mouse-turds.” We slept communally in the back of the shop and ate turkey legs and attended jousting shows during breaks. I was paid in chainmail, not currency, because teenagers shouldn’t be allowed to negotiate their wages.
Which is all to say that Lifetime’s snappy and winsome new hourlong comedy, American Princess, is almost shockingly accurate in its deep-lens view of the ren faire lifestyle, especially from the perspective of a bratty New Yorker who can’t quite gel with upstate vibes, as was also my case. (The casting of multiple thickly built women! The casual polyamory!) Georgia Flood stars as Amanda, an upper Manhattan belle juive who discovers her fiancé mid-blowjob on the morning of their pastoral wedding and absconds after accidentally assaulting the interloping seductress.
She soon finds herself stranded in the countryside and stumbles on a mid-summer Renaissance faire, where she encounters an eclectic community of accepting folk who worship the fantasy of Merry England — and act as emotional refuge from the flaming wreckage of her socialite existence. You can practically imagine the pitch meeting: “What if Charlotte York ran away to join the fat nerd circus?!”
Co-producer Jenji Kohan has a predilection for humbling beautiful upper-crust women, and American Princess shares many beats with the first season of Orange Is the New Black: a snobbish but well-meaning Seven Sisters grad slips down the rabbit hole after wrongdoing; an eccentric group of lovable and cliquish misfits who slowly welcome her into their grotty little den; an obsession with gross-out humor that also serves to educate the audience about a hidden subculture; and a supercilious redheaded grimalkin whom our hero must mollify in order to win the game of thrones. (There it was the Russian mafiosa Galina “Red” Reznikov. Here it’s a seasoned thespian who plays the faire’s Queen Elizabeth I.) The show’s title is both a nod to European monarchal culture and a sly reference to a somewhat anti-Semitic slur used by many Long Island and New York City middle schoolers to describe each other.
American Princess might have just been a one-off rom-com in another life, like a Ren Faire-set Overboard, but the show soon settles into something smarter, darker and emotionally richer than its high-concept fish-out-of-troubled-water conceit might indicate. Amanda isn’t merely a gilded dumb-dumb, constantly resisting the call of the wild for our amusement, but a former English major and amateur historian who puts her whole heart into embracing this weird, bawdy and muddy new place. (Or, as she describes, “It’s like what if super horny nerds designed an amusement park.”)
The former “clean beauty and wellness” freelancer works to develop a new faire persona as a bosomy alewife, all the while defending her choices to her termagant relatives and friends. The series also tackles aging, addiction, parenting, ethical non-monogamy and how feminism fits into a nostalgic, mythologized vision of early modern Europe.
Amanda becomes closest with Lucas Neff’s David (a.k.a. Pizzle Humpsalot, the village’s abased dirtlord), a dead-sexy charmer who tries to help her realize she’s an alcoholic, and Mary Hollis Inboden’s Delilah (aka Prunella the Washer Wench), a chirpy, jocund maenad who delights in teaching her the ways of the “Rennies.” These two are the standouts in a sprawling cast that includes Broadway stars and Oscar nominees, and Inboden, in particular, is a firework who kindles every scene she’s in. Delilah is the most realistic of the main cast as an effervescent, Rubenesque faire worker, and her need to nurture Amanda into oblivion may remind you of Elmyra Duff from Tiny Toon Adventures.
The show’s grotesque sexuality won’t be everyone’s cup of mead, and the writing will definitely test your tolerance for sticky fluids-based joke-telling. (The first four episodes flood you with sludge, spit, blood, barf, pee, farts, lice, breast milk, used condoms, pubic hair, screaming orgasms, droning vibrators, head-bobbing oral sex, explosive diarrhea and busted nipple piercings.) But the details that showcase the drudgery of performance elevate American Princess from being a simple workplace comedy set at a summer camp for adults. In one scene, David makes a dirty joke while collecting tips after his mud show. But what seems like a kitschy, off-the-cuff one-liner for us the first time becomes a signifier of monotony when you hear him make the same joke again, a little wearier now, later in the episode.
Creator Jamie Denbo is inventive in her character development, giving Delilah an evangelical background to have rebelled against and the faire’s affected William Shakespeare, Brian (Rory O’Malley), a desire to repent from his pretensions. Brian is the secret heart of the series, an awkward, literary gay man in his late 30s recovering from the traumas of coming of age before it was more accepted to be out as a teenager. American Princess may very well be the next great summer comedy, which is no surprise given characters called “Pickle Wench” and “Meth Pushcart Monkey.”
Starring: Georgia Flood, Lucas Neff, Mary Hollis Inboden, Seana Kofoed, Rory O’Malley, Steve Agee, Dioni Michelle Collins, Sas Goldberg, Erin Pineda, Lesley Ann Warren
Executive producers: Jamie Denbo, Jenji Kohan, Tara Herrmann, Mark A. Burley, Jon Sherman
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (Lifetime)